Pailin Municipality – Even from behind the large, dark brown, tortoise-shell frames of his Gucci sunglasses, Nuon Chea could hide his fear. His mouth worked but made no sound. For just a moment, his belligerent mood and tough talk on class struggle and revolution stopped and the old man who was once the Khmer Rouge second-in-command offered a rare glimpse of his vulnerability.
An intruder was in the compound.
Using a degree of stealth that the former Khmer Rouge guerilla leader should have appreciated, a tall European man in his late 40s crept up on Nuon Chea’s wooden home on the Thai border on Saturday morning.
Now at the entrance to the stilted house, the man called for the owner to show himself. Bellowing “Nuon Chea, Nuon Chea,” and armed with two professional cameras, he began to shoot photographs of the small wooden home.
Panicked, Nuon Chea looked to his wife, Ly Kim Seng, who was already on her feet and moving toward the doorway shooing away the photographer, saying in Khmer that her husband was busy. She said later that he looked like a photographer who had tried the same approach the day before.
Voice and composure returning, Nuon Chea remarked: “When it becomes like this I will have to be careful.”
“I don’t hate journalists, but when they are coming like this I don’t know if they are real journalists or not. I’m worried about my security.”
Nuon Chea doesn’t know how often reporters visit his house, but his wife, who deals with most of them, does: “It happens almost every day.”
Reporters have forced their way into the stilt house twice in recent years, one even let himself into Nuon Chea’s bedroom and videotaped the old leader taking an afternoon nap.
It’s a small hindrance for Brother Number Two, who at 80 is surprisingly healthy, singularly unrepentant about the past and proud of his reputation as a communist hard-liner. But the old revolutionary is becoming rudely aware that the Khmer Rouge tribunal, and the media’s interest in his possible future indictment by it, is moving steadily forward.
Nuon Chea says that he has “prepared his stance,” which to anyone but former Khmer Rouge leaders, who regularly deny the brutality of their regime, would more accurately mean that he has prepared his defense.
“I don’t know if they will allow me to do it or not, but I will be my own lawyer,” said Nuon Chea. “[International defense] lawyers from outside understand the law but they don’t understand us. They cannot explain our actions,” he said.
He is also preparing to be an inmate at the prison that will soon be built inside the compound of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.
Ta Mok’s years in military prison have taught Nuon Chea a lesson, and he doesn’t plan to succumb to the monotony of life in detention.
“I will read books in prison, learn another language and exercise. I will do all of this so that I can make myself strong. I told my wife not to visit me in jail and if I die, not to make a ceremony but keep the money for my children’s education. When I die it will all be finished,” he said.
“Ta Mok was a man of action. He was a farmer and liked to work but when he was in jail he was not active and he became stressed,” Nuon Chea added.
Despite conspiracy theories from some quarters, Nuon Chea believes that Ta Mok died of natural causes at the military hospital in Phnom Penh and he chuckled at reports that Ta Mok would have been an important witness for the ECCC.
“I don’t know what secrets he knew, but Ta Mok was very loyal…. He would not have said anything,” he said.
“I was already prepared [for Ta Mok’s death] and I knew it would be like this, so when I heard this information I was not surprised. Even the trial, I am prepared so I am not frightened.”
More than seven and a half years after he and former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan left the jungle under a government deal to surrender and return to civilian life, Nuon Chea says his health has improved but he has a persistent pain in his shoulder that the 14 tablets he takes each day can’t cure.
He spends most days keeping up with international news with the help of a television tucked away in his small bedroom, and is visited by one of his 11 grandchildren most days.
Family is important, Nuon Chea says, and again shows a rare instance of vulnerability where the ownership of a villa in Battambang province is concerned.
Lawyers recently accused the former Khmer Rouge ideologue of leading a double life: one of faux austerity in Pailin for visiting researchers and reporters, and a second more lavish and comfortable existence at a weekend home in Battambang town. The villa, where Nuon Chea spent a recent weekend attending a family gathering and party, may, according the researchers, have been bought with the ill-gotten gains of the bloody Khmer Rouge regime and should be fair game for confiscation by the tribunal.
“It does not belong to me, it belongs to my sister in the US. For me, I have nothing. When I visit [Battambang], I have nowhere to stay so I stay there,” he said of the house.
But as with his health in recent years, Nuon Chea’s material wellbeing is also improving a little. A new silver Hitachi refrigerator dominates the reception room of his home and a metal topped table that was the centerpiece in 2004 has now been replaced by a heavy, teak dinner table with matching armchairs.
Matching this growing sophistication, Nuon Chea’s conversation about the past and his recollections of Democratic Kampuchea appear to have become more legalistically refined and his answers and tone of delivery feel at times like a test run for his imminent day in the ECCC dock.
“They will try to find out the truth but that is not easy to find because it was more than 30 years ago. However, if they look for the reason that led to the three-year regime, they may find it,” he says of the international and national prosecutors.
“It was because of two kinds of war: invasion and defense. But who made the war of invasion and who made the war of defense? I made the war to defend the nation. But who made the war that led to the invasion? They must find this reason. But I don’t think there will be justice.”
Interviewed in 2004, Nuon Chea explained the atrocities of the regime in terms similar to that of a political omelet, where eggs needed to be broken to make the perfect dish.
Now his response seems to challenge his judges to find definitive proof that Cambodia’s 1.7 million dead were killed at the hands of the Khmer Rouge and that the bones entombed in mass graves across the country are actually those of Pol Pot’s victims.
“I don’t know who did or didn’t do it…. It’s difficult to speak about myself, but I believe in myself and I didn’t order anyone to be killed,” Nuon Chea maintained.
“If they accuse me of this, I will make a report and deny it,” he said. “I will show them how many people died from different periods, they died during the Lon Nol regime, during the 300 days and nights of US bombing and during the [Vietnamese] invasion.”
“The courts have two accusations: war crimes and genocide. I would like to ask about the war crimes. I didn’t invade. I made the war to protect the country against an invasion. And genocide is when one nation kills the people of another nation. But this is Cambodia, so how could there have been genocide?”
Despite his advancing years, white hair, some missing front teeth, waxy complexion and penchant for zany sunglasses, Nuon Chea said he should still be described as a “hardened revolutionary.”
“Yes. I still am,” but also a patriot, too, he said.
“If human beings have no ideals of loving the nation and the people, how can they be human?”
Born Long Bunruot in 1926 in Battambang province, Nuon Chea joined the Indochinese Communist Party in 1951 and rose quickly through the ranks of the Communist Party of Kampuchea to eventually become Pol Pot’s most trusted lieutenant and, according to researchers, a key player in devising and implementing the execution policies of the 1975-1979 regime.
Khaing Kek Ieu, better know as Duch when he was commander of the S 21 prison and torture center in Phnom Penh between 1976 and 1978, confessed in 1999 to working closely with Nuon Chea.
He said at the time that Nuon Chea had intimate knowledge of the successive waves of purges in Democratic Kampuchea’s administrative zones.
Recounting just one notorious order, Duch said that Nuon Chea told him to personally execute the remaining prisoners at Tuol Sleng prison as Vietnamese tanks and troops closed in on Phnom Penh in the last days of the regime in January 1979.
“I asked Nuon Chea to allow me to keep one Vietnamese prisoner alive to use for propaganda on the radio, and he replied, ‘Kill them all. We can always get more and more.’ I was like a waterboy for Nuon Chea,” recounted Duch, a born-again Christian, to journalist Nate Thayer at the time.
Taking off his sunglasses to look over a copy of Philip Short’s biography, “Pol Pot, Anatomy of a Nightmare,” Nuon Chea spent some time putting names to faces in a section with old photographs of his communist comrades.
On one page, there is a picture of a smiling Pol Pot surrounded by children, one sitting on his knee and another with Pol Pot vacationing in Thailand with his second wife.
Above the photograph, a younger Nuon Chea is holding Pol Pot’s six-month-old daughter, Sitha, as they pose for a photograph in 1986. On the facing page, the photographs show four senior Khmer Rouge commanders who were executed and one who committed suicide during the purges of 1977 and 1978 ordered by Pol Pot and at the very least know about by Nuon Chea.
The caption below Nuon Chea’s photo describes him as “One of the cruelest of the Khmer Rouge leaders, Nuon Chea living up to his alias ‘Grand-Uncle.'”
Putting the book down, Nuon Chea said that at this stage in his life, he would change nothing about his past but does remember that as a child he always felt frightened, but of nothing in particular. As he grew older, those feeling of fear were replaced by a sense of power.
“When I had power, I only worried then about the people,” he said.
With both hands in front of him on the table and sitting poker stiff as he had throughout the interview, Nuon Chea continued, but his right foot began to tap the floor very lightly: “I have no regrets. Regret is useless. The past is experience for me to think about the future.” His foot continued to tap as he added: “I have not done anything bad. I do everything good. I try to make my thinking pure, clean, and uncomplicated.”
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